Prime Minister Paul Martin made a strong case last night for delaying a federal election, even if he doesn't succeed in fending one off.
Canadians are angry, and rightly so, over the dramatic allegations about the sponsorship scandal that are emerging from the Gomery inquiry. But we won't know the full picture until Mr. JusticeJohn Gomery submits his final report later this year. At that time, Mr. Martin has promised to go to the people and face their judgment in a general election -- an extraordinary pledge for a Canadian prime minister. "Let the facts come out," he said. "And then the people of Canada will have their say." That seems a fair bargain.
No one can claim now that the Liberals are refusing to face the music. They will face it by early next year at the latest. If the public decides then that Mr. Martin's government should be held responsible for the scandal, so be it. As the opposition keeps saying, this was after all a Liberal scandal, and voters may well decide that Liberals should pay for it, even if the events took place under another prime minister.
But, despite the opposition's attempts to tar Mr. Martin with the sponsorship brush, there is nothing so far to suggest that he himself did anything wrong -- apart, that is, from failing to detect and stop what was going on, a failure that he apologized for in his address. Nor can the opposition fairly argue that Mr. Martin has failed to respond vigorously enough to the scandal. In sharp contrast to Jean Chrétien, who pushed the whole thing aside, Mr. Martin has bent over backwards to get to the bottom of it. As he recounted last night, he cancelled the sponsorship program on his first day in office, fired the minister in charge, set up the Gomery inquiry, directed his government to suepeople and companies to recover lost sponsorship money, called in the RCMP and asked auditors to examine Liberal books.
What more would the opposition have him do? He has apologized repeatedly for what happened. He has marshalled all the resources of government to investigate it. He admitted last night that he, personally, should have been more vigilant when he was finance minister. Say what you like about Mr. Martin's lack of focus, his wavering leadership as prime minister and his other obvious failings, but there is no doubt that he has responded honourably and well to the sponsorship issue. That came through in his sincere and solid performance last night.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, by contrast, was shrill and excessive. His thirst to harness the anger over sponsorship to bring down Mr. Martin is understandable. Opposition parties seldom get a gift as rich as this scandal, and Mr. Harper may yet decide to defeat the government over it, as is his perfect right in a minority Parliament. But to call Mr. Martin's speech a "sad spectacle" performed by a man "begging" for another chance was a bit much. He accused Mr. Martin of turning a "blind eye" when he was minister of finance, suggesting he knew about but deliberately ignored what was going on. There is no evidence of that. He said Mr. Martin chose to hold an election last year "before any of the facts of the sponsorship scandal were known." That was rich coming from a fellow who is thinking about triggering an election before the results of the inquiry are known. He suggested that Mr. Martin would have shut down the Gomery inquiry if he had won a majority last June. Highly unlikely. Mr. Martin could not have justified doing that even if he had wanted to.
"Do Canadians really believe that the number-two man in a government now under a cloud of corruption is the person to clean up that mess today?" Mr. Harper asked. Well, perhaps he is. A straight arrow if there ever was one, Mr. Martin may be just the man for the job. To pull him down over the sponsorship mess now, only a year after the last election and months before the inquiry report, would be an act of the purest opportunism -- especially given his promise to hold a vote after the report regardless of what it says. (Just try to imagine Mr. Chrétien promising something like that.)
Let all the facts emerge. Let JudgeGomery weigh them. Then let the voters decide whether Mr. Martin should lose his job.